DHHS Testifies at Hearings on Child Welfare Proposals
Lincoln – The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services opposed three bills Thursday (1/26) that grew out of the Legislature’s Legislative Resolution 37 examination of child welfare reform in the state.
The bills would impact DHHS’ child welfare reform program titled Families Matter, which supports the safety, permanency and well being of children in their homes and communities through prevention, diversion, treatment and aftercare services, said Scot Adams, interim DHHS director of Children and Family Services Division.
Currently, state law allows a child or sibling group to be placed in foster care with a person known by the child without requiring the person to be a licensed foster parent. Background checks would be required. LB 874 would require persons providing foster care who are not related to a child by blood, marriage or adoption to have a foster care license.
The bill would lead to a large increase in the number of homes that must be licensed and it would negatively impact children, Adams said.
He told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee the bill could result in the loss of more than 300 foster homes. At the end of December, 374 children were placed in non-relative homes. Teenagers would be most affected because placements are difficult for that age group, but frequent and positive foster parents are parents of their friends or former teachers.
Children’s removal from their home is traumatizing, and when they can’t be placed with relatives or other persons they know, they are placed with strangers, Adams said. Passage of the bill would make it less likely that children could be placed in their home community and in close proximity to their school, friends, and parents, resulting in decreased stability and continuity for the child.
The bill also would mean DHHS may not meet federal outcome measures regarding placement stability and well being, he said. It takes time for foster parents to become licensed, which requires 21 hours of foster care training, and national criminal check of prospective foster parents and other adults in the home. Interim placement would be necessary that would add to increased instability and a negative outcome by measure of the federal government.
“DHHS is committed to assuring safety for children in out-of-home care.” Adams said. “We believe there is a difference between the requirements and process needed when a foster home is licensed for children in general, versus that needed when an assessment can be done for a specific child, and we think the current statute balances these forces adequately.”
LB 961 would return case management of state wards to DHHS from private contractors KVC and Nebraska Families Collaborative by July 1, 2013, and that caseloads be reduced by 10 percent a year until the standard set by the Child Welfare League of America is met.
Adams, who spoke in opposition to the bill, asked the Health and Human Services Committee to take a long-term view of reform. “I don’t discount that we have faced a number of significant challenges in our reform efforts,” he said. “We are in the middle of managing a dramatic shift in how we serve children and families. Changing course at this time would be a mistake and bring more disruption to the lives of our children and their families.”
He pointed to other states that have contracted case management and showed improved outcomes for children and families. A study by the Casey Family Programs, a foundation that works to provide, improve and prevent the need for foster care, stated, “Commitment to change is essential. The most consistent message echoed throughout the interviews was that the first few years of the transition were extremely difficult and that a strong level of resistance from all sides to such a massive systems overhaul should be expected.”
“The study said states should consider the transition to take at least three years,” Adams said. “I am concerned that passage of the bill could likely result in an early or even immediate termination of those contracts by KVC and NFC, which would cause immediate difficulties in providing a transition that would not negatively impact children and families.”
Families Matter is midstream in the reform, he said, and DHHS is implementing Structured Decision Making, an effective process used in more than 20 other states since the 1980s, that helps identify children’s needs so they can be more effectively addressed. Through this process, other states have realized lower case rates. In addition, an Operations Plan outlining statewide priorities, process outcomes and compliance standards was completed in October.
He said that through these efforts, since reform began in January 2009, improvement has been seen in five of the six critical federal standards that measure child safety and permanency. In the one standard that has not improved, permanency for children in foster care, Nebraska exceeds the national standard. Nebraska also exceeds the national standard targets for absence of maltreatment for children in foster care and timeliness of adoptions.
“We are monitoring our performance in six critical areas so we can make adjustments to improve outcomes,” Adams said. “We are taking advantage of the benefits our private sector partners offer, such as, research resources and flexibility in services, aligning public and private goals and programs for children, increased public awareness of children’s needs, improvement in the available data to evaluate our system, and lower caseloads.”
He also said reducing caseloads by 10 percent a year would be a challenge.
A letter from DHHS CEO Kerry Winterer in opposition to LB 957 was presented to the Health and Human Services Committee. It would establish the office of inspector general of Nebraska child welfare within the Office of Public Counsel.
Winterer said some responsibilities of the proposed office duplicate similar responsibilities resting in DHHS and law enforcement and expand the role of the Public Counsel, which is charged with oversight and investigation of administrative acts of executive branch agencies.
He listed those who could come under the scrutiny of the proposed inspector general, including private agencies and subcontractors, licensed child care facilities, foster parents, providers of child welfare services, programs or facilities licensed by DHHS, and persons credentialed under the Uniform Credentialing Act. “Oversight and investigation of all these individuals and entities is a function of the executive branch and expanding the role of the legislative branch in this way raises Constitutional questions regarding separation of powers,” Winterer said.
Under LB 957, the role of the inspector general, acting as an arm of the legislative branch, would go beyond the Legislature’s lawmaking function, he said. When a person is served with a subpoena, the bill also doesn’t allow for due process protection to quash it or to invoke attorney-client or doctor-patient privilege. Another due process issue surrounds access to reports of the inspector general. Those receiving a report aren’t allowed to disclose its contents, which could violate due process and the ability to cross-examine the inspector general.
The bill also calls for criminal liability when a person fails to comply with a subpoena or answer a question. Currently, the Public Counsel enforces subpoenas through the courts.
Winterer also said a person’s constitutional right against self-incrimination would be affected, because the bill creates a criminal penalty for refusal to comply with a subpoena or answer questions.
He stated his concern that the inspector general could interfere with criminal or civil investigations being carried out by DHHS, law enforcement or other agencies. It would add another investigator who would conduct a separate investigation.
LB 957 would allow the inspector general to seize original records, leaving it unclear how law enforcement would be able to gather evidence or provide chain of custody, he said.
The legislation also would require a toll-free telephone line for complaints, which Winterer said could create confusion in the public about whether to call DHHS, law enforcement or the inspector general. And, there is no requirement in the bill for the inspector general to refer or disclose complaints, which could result in some reports falling through the cracks.